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Alain Le Toquin

Photographe du patrimoine mondial naturel et culturel

World Natural and Cultural Heritage Photographer


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Beth Chatto's forewords


Dans les jardins du monde - 80 lieux d'exception



It is an honour for me to be invited to write a forward for this magnificent new book of Alain Le Toquin pictures. Particularly so since I have spent my life as a gardener on a domestic scale, rather than as a student of world-famous historic gardens. That is not to say that any of us modern gardeners cannot be influenced by the myriad ideas illustrated here of combining plants with man-made features.  Whatever the size of the garden, it is the contrast of shapes, textures and forms, which make a satisfactory picture. This may be achieved, as in truly great gardens, by the use of imposing architectural features, combined with clipped trees and shrubs as well as freestyle planting, to echo or soften man-made shapes. Initially there was neither the money nor inclination to introduce hard landscaping into my garden. I still have only a minimum of structures, but rely on good foliage plants to act as architectural features.

Alain comes into a garden as the artist behind the lens. His eye picks out aspects, details, combinations that you may never have noticed before. I am indebted to him for some of the most sensitive pictures of my garden that he has taken over a number of years. Yet in most ways it is the antithesis of the great gardens that have survived over generations, and that are illustrated here.

My garden began in 1960. It began from a wilderness, just wasteland, unfit for farming. It consisted mostly of areas of dry gravel soil leading down to a boggy hollow, fed by springs. Combined with the lowest annual rainfall in England, 20 inches – 50 cms (10 inches in summer and, 10 inches in winter) it appeared an unlikely site for a conventional garden. But my late husband, Andrew Chatto and I hoped to convert these problem areas into advantages. His life-long study was researching the natural homes of garden plants; not merely where they came from but the conditions, - the soil, aspect, rainfall and associations. Another important influence came from our friend the famous painter, the late Sir Cedric Morris whose garden, an hour’s drive from here, consisting of species bulbs and plants was legendary, at a time when mainly cultivars were considered proper garden plants. The work of these two men has inspired and influenced my entire approach to making a garden, by using predominately species plants, and selecting plants adapted by nature to survive and thrive in what may appear to be impossible situations; such as too hot and dry, too dry and shady, ill drained and soggy.

The third and perhaps surprising influence came from the founding of Flower Arranging Clubs in England, in the mid 1950’s. There I was first introduced to the Japanese Golden Rule, the Earth, Heaven, Man triangle, which taught me to value shapes, foliage and form more than colour.

Gardening is a constant source of wonder. It can be found in the simplest of ways. As a small child, about 5 years old, I had my first intimate awareness of plant life. In a glass jam-pot, lined with moist, pink, blotting paper, was put a large seed of the Broad Bean. I can still recall the wonder of watching daily as the first white roots emerged, followed by the palest green leaves. It was magical. Today, after many years of propagation I still feel the same elation as I lift out a newly rooted cutting or find that some difficult seed has germinated.

Gardening gives us the opportunity to be creative, unlike almost any other activity, even excluding music and painting, both of which rank with gardening as perhaps the most civilised thing left to do in our competitive world.

Increasingly it seems to me that the time of large, private gardens open to a discerning public may be hard to maintain, due to the cost of upkeep and the need to find plant minded, trained gardeners, who are able to cherish them. Corporation run parks and gardens, as well as historic gardens supported by charities will continue since they are the lungs of many conurbations as well as providing space and freedom for all kinds of healthy activities. Sadly, modern domestic architecture reduces the area for a garden to little more than a few square yards, sometimes less! Small wonder the interest in window boxes, hanging baskets and pot gardens has spread like wild fire.

Since the last war there has been a tremendous increase in the variety of plants, trees and shrubs newly introduced and made available in garden centres, as well as in nurseries. Many of these will continue to be cherished in average sized domestic gardens where true plant lovers will always be found.

Many years ago, in New York, I was taken to see small patches of land that had lain derelict while towering skyscrapers of apartments had been built around them. I was told that a variety of races and classes lived in these dwellings, which looked down onto this enclosed space. At some stage, independently, a few of the residents began to take over this waste-land. Initially they grew mostly food crops, beans, tomatoes, peppers and salads. Soon flowers were introduced, tall sunflowers and gay annuals. It seems those first efforts drew down other residents, (intrigued by seeing the bare land blossom), who also became involved in the caring and nurturing. In the beginning the Horticultural Society helped with the cost of tools and seed, and as the project developed they organised shows and other events to enable these spontaneous gardens to encourage the feeling of good neighbourliness.

Around the world multi-storey buildings can be made to provide conditions suitable for the maintenance of sky-high gardens complete with full-grown trees and shrubs, while roof tiles are being replaced with a wide variety of cover plants. At present, all these examples enhance the environment, but since irrigation is inevitably a necessity, what will happen when the water supply dries up, when we cannot afford to waste water on what could be considered a luxury. Already this is happening in areas affected by year-long droughts, where much loved green lawns cannot be maintained. In the not so distant future water will be more precious than oil! We need to be prepared to give up some of our present ideas of what makes a garden. Then surely we must seek plants adapted by nature to survive long periods without regular rainwater. Global warming may mean that areas now affected by freezing temperatures in winter may become frost-free. Then we could consider tender succulents, which are adapted to survive drought.

Increasingly the art and craft of gardening is being acknowledged as a beneficial therapy for promoting good health as well as being a means of helping the disabled and deprived. Those of us who are well, after only a few days kept indoors by bad weather, have only to step outside into the garden, however small, to gulp down energizing breaths of cool, fresh air, to feel our spirits rise and turn thankfully to even the most mundane task. Various charity associations, schools, even prisons are providing opportunities for the blind, physically handicapped, those suffering from depression or mental illness, enabling them to lose themselves for a while in the joy of handling and caring for living plants. It is an opportunity to be outside in fresh air and sunlight, in touch with the good earth. The garden whether large or small is there all the year round, helping us come to accept not only the seasonal cycle of the year, but the cycle of our own lives.

Gardening enables us to look forward. Just the thought of the first snowdrops carries us through the dark days of winter, which can still stir us with the beauty of low sunlight falling on comforting evergreen, vividly coloured stems, or the black and white tracery of bare branches outlined with hoar frost.

Whether we grow only vegetables for food, or rare plants for the pleasure of possessing them, we are following an instinct to create beauty as well as preserve life. It comforts me to remember the Chinese proverb. “If a man has two coins, with one he buys a loaf, with the other he buys a narcissus”!!

Beth Chatto, 2009

Visit The Beth Chatto Gardens, Essex, UK



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